I Hate Olives (Meandering About Relativism, Preference, and Critique)

Sam Wilkinson

According to a faithful reader, I'm Ordinary Times's "least thoughtful writer." So I've got that going for me, which is nice.

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184 Responses

  1. I Hate Olives…

    God, we really don’t agree on anything, do we? Except running. Running’s awesome.Report

  2. zic says:


    For years, I really disliked raspberries. They overwhelmed all other flavors of anything that got near them; even in the same shopping bag/refrigerator near.

    Then one day, my brother-in-law (who loves them) and my brother, his husband, who’s indifferent to them, and I had a conversation about raspberries. And my brother-in-law called their flavor ‘subtle.’ Subtle. that’s the exact word he used; for something that completely overwhelmed.

    It does suggest that there are different flavors of persons. And one person’s olive is another’s raspberry, and that remembering not to measure by our own reactions might, on occasion, matter. It might even rise to the level of being considerate and respectful.

    But here’s the really odd thing.

    To be respectful and loving, I made my dear, sweet brother-in-law some goodies with raspberry. And since I’m a very serious cook, I taste and smell as I cook. And I tried, as I tasted, to see what he could have possibly meant by ‘subtle.’ This took several attempts at goody-making, too. By the end of which, I had acquired a taste for raspberries, my brother-in-law had acquired a new fondness for me and my cooking, and my brother had acquired a host of new recipes from me that, to this day, he makes to please his husband.

    I think them bold and assertive (the raspberries, not my brother and his husband, they are sweet and loving); with raspberries, there’s nothing subtle going on at all. But I quite like them now, and occasionally, seek them out just for me.

    Now I imagine my raspberry critics. The raspberry hater must think me a traitor. The lover, a convert, the indifferent critic seems the one best able to see that the constant in human nature is change. That bothers me tremendously.Report

  3. NewDealer says:

    I generally agree with you on relativism and value. I’ve pointed this out before on this sight when critiquing people who talk about how being into certain things makes someone a “consumerist sheep” while their own consumptive preferences express freedom from corporate culture or are not on the level of “consumerist sheep.”

    People seem to take themselves for the norm psychologically and taste wise and then big sort themselves out to social circles that are generally more alike than different. However the on-line world allows for some dissenters in terms of culture and such coming in.

    People also seem to take it as a personal affront when someone says that they dislike their preferred culture. When I say, I am not into X it is usually not meant to be hostile but often can get perceived as such. Part of this is because of tone or problems with perceiving tone on through writing.

    I used to be heavily involved with fandom when I was younger. Now I am largely out of it but know many people who are still involved with it. They are fine and good people but we have completely different cultures at this point. I haven’t played a video game for ages and consider them to be largely too much effort, expense, and time. There are always expansion packs, new games, and other stuff that must be spent money on. Many of these people express an ideal date night as coming home from work and playing a game side by side with their partner. Or if it is a group event, watching some obviously horrible B-movie and snarking at it. I never liked MST3King when I was in fandom and the idea of watching a horrible movie on purpose is absolutely perplexing to me.

    Likewise, people often seem to think I am opposed to fun based on my reading and movie watching habits. To most people, my pleasure reading is the type of stuff you are forced to endure in English class in high school and college. I also like a lot of academic non-fiction/history, not the stuff that makes the NYT bestseller list usually. So I go on the defensive when people ask me if I ever “read for fun.” Just because I prefer Edith Wharton and Geoff Dyer and the NYRB rereleases to a Game of Thrones and the Hunger Games does not mean I don’t read for fun. Reading is one of my primary recreations and if a book is not enjoyable or interesting, I usually put it down.

    But it is hard to tell the difference between someone who sincerely enjoys something and someone who pretends to because they think it makes them look good, sophisticated, cultured, etc. So the default for high culture seems to be that any expressed interest is insincere.Report

    • Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

      I expect people to explain themselves.
      If you say you’re not into “television” I expect you to have reasons.
      I have reasons for hating most french toast (except the Commander’s Palace version,
      which uses actual French Bread, and thus isn’t mushy — yes, I have a taste fetish. most people have at least one).

      I don’t get how you could be in theater and not like improv. Is it because it’s that much worse than crafted stuff?

      I don’t assume that someone is insincere. I test it, and generally find it accurate.

      You seem far more attached to being “high culture” and “not into gaming” than seems psychologically healthy to me (I am, as always, someone perfectly happy with watching
      The Deflowering of Eva von End, and then reading Oddmen 11, and then watching
      some Parks and Recreation). [Listen to me, as if I don’t have my own problems!!]
      Please note: when I say the above, i’m not saying that you’re posing. I think you do genuinely like high culture.Report

      • NewDealer in reply to Kim says:

        I don’t dislike improv. I just think it is being overdone right now because it seems largely cheaper and possibly “easier” than a full production with designers, actors, rehearsal, a director, and a real script.Report

      • zic in reply to Kim says:

        @newdealer I take exception.

        Not based on theater, but on music. Because I’m married to an improve musician. Here’s a review of a recent gig. (And I love this review. It rocked my little world.)

        Really good improv, be it theater or music or comedy, is probably the pinnacle of art; making it live in front of other people. It requires a lot of the audience, though. They have to actually participate, not just consume.Report

  4. NewDealer says:

    People also seem to like to take certain interests and claim that being uninterested in them is a sign of moral superiority or enlightenment.

    Clothing and fashion seems usual for bashing in regards. Instead of people merely saying that “I don’t care about fashion” very much, it gets elevated to saying that those who are interested in fashion are foppish, foolish, enablers of an evil industry, fundamentally not-serious, etc.

    There is a lot of art, craftsmanship, and detailing in clothing that I respect. It is like wearable everyday art. It is entirely serious and worthy of respect.

    Then again I tend towards aesthetics and being an arts and humanity brain type and notice these things. If one does not tend towards aesthetics and doesn’t care, I imagine the detailing and craftsmanship don’t matter.Report

  5. North says:

    I dunno, with olives or art or recreational activities or even professions I think you’re on solid ground. Yank out the jar of olives and put in women’s rights or civil rights on the other hand and suddenly you’re sounding awfully unlike yourself. Maybe we’re relativist about relativism?Report

    • Jason Kuznicki in reply to North says:

      Exactly. Philosophy commonly draws distinctions between questions of taste and those of morality. And within the questions of morality, there are acts that are required, acts that are prohibited, and acts that are praiseworthy without being required.

      This is why Nietzsche was such a radical relativist when he claimed that all life was a dispute about taste and tasting. It is of course possible for disputes about taste to exist (as with olives, raspberries, and many others) without those disputes necessarily implying anything about other types of dispute.Report

    • Sam in reply to North says:

      I am not certain that I would lump moral issues in with a consider of olives. Am I bound to do so?Report

      • North in reply to Sam says:

        If you profess general shrugging relativism then the assumption that you did would follow.Report

      • Sam in reply to Sam says:

        I would think the idea of shrugging about my relativism implies something less than the fundamentalist fervor necessary to conflate a physical thing with a political concept. But perhaps we view the act of shrugging differently?Report

      • North in reply to Sam says:

        Possibly? I suppose I may be reading into it too far; potentially because I’m assuming the post had a deeper meaning. I mean the assertion that peoples tastes are subjective and relative strikes me as so universally agreed upon as to be pointless. I don’t think you could find even a fundamentalist who’d assert that, say, favorite colors have an objectively correct answer and incorrect ones.Report

  6. Patrick says:

    I think the problem with relativism (or objective truthism, for that matter) is that everything *is* lumped in together.

    A brief sojourn: I think I am quite likely to be told that olives are very unlike music, movies, paintings, sculpture, whatever. Perhaps. But olives, like all of those, are just another thing…. I fail to see how music, movies, paintings, sculpture, or whatever else are any different in producing a variety of responses from their consumers.

    I don’t think this is a particularly useful way to look at “things”. Throwing everything in a single container ignores some actual objective differences between some classes of things and other classes of thing.

    I think Jaybird’s distinction of, “matters of taste and matters of morality” is far more useful than attempting to make everything into either matter of taste (relativism) or a matter of morality (objective truthism).Report

    • zic in reply to Patrick says:

      As someone who’s farmed, I point out:

      Olives are an agricultural product. But they are inedible as fruit, they must be processed. Too bitter to eat raw. We squeeze them, we brine them, we cure them.

      This is an art, like fermenting beer or bread or cheese are all arts. They have been mechanized, yes. But the art remains.Report

    • Kim in reply to Patrick says:

      I also think that one can be reasonably objective about aspects of things.
      This building is taller than that one.
      This painting comports more to the Golden Mean…Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Patrick says:

      Jaybird and I probably disagree pretty strong on some matters of morality.

      I don’t think there is ever going to be a total victory where my stances in taste and morality are completely victorious. Even when in the majority, there will be a substantial number of dissenters. This is the extent of my relativism just the acknowledgment that universal agreement is not possible and for some questions of morality reasonable people can disagree for a wide variety of reasons. Not all but some. Whether people should be able to donate their organs for sale is a question of morality that seems to have interesting and valid arguments on the pro and con sides.Report

    • Sam in reply to Patrick says:

      Such as? What are two items that we shouldn’t consider together? I don’t believe I made an argument that morality and things should be considered as being one in the same. But a jumping off point would be useful.Report

      • zic in reply to Sam says:

        @sam-wilkinson, I appreciate that.

        For instance, I find many religious practices offensive; particularly in gender issues. But I’ve also got to be respectful in voicing that offense; I’m not supposed to deride the derisive.

        As I see it, the problem is that everybody owns their own jumping off point. What to someone else might be relative; rather they like olives or not, might also be moral — the ability to make a living growing olives, for instance, or the ability to process them for market given certain market conditions. It involves the environments where olives are grown, and the impact on air and water quality; things that are moral discussions. The health and well-being of the people who make their living in the commerce of olives. The trade rules. They’re all, for somebody, a relative discussion, and for the next person interested in olives, a moral discussion. For somebody else, the olive might be sacred, and part of their religious beliefs, including the offensive belief that Penelope should be forced to marry a suitor against her will.Report

  7. NewDealer says:

    Speaking on these kinds of conversations, there is a rather long one going on at my facebook page about tough mudder. I have absolutely no desire to do one and don’t understand why getting super muddy and doing an obstacle course where certain events are given names like artic enema and electroshock therapy is fun.Report

    • Kim in reply to NewDealer says:

      Thrill seeking behavior rarely makes sense to other personality types.
      And mudders tend to get mixed up with the folks who want to be
      “weekend warriors” (not implying bikes, just using their word).Report

  8. QuibblerMan says:

    You can distinguish intrapersonal relativism from interpersonal relativism.

    Intrapersonal relativism: “I like raspberries more than I like olives.” My statement would accurately describe a fact about my relative preferences for these two things. However, only I can directly observe my preferences. And only I can measure the relative degrees of difference between my preferences. In other words, only I can experience my own qualia.

    Interpersonal relativism: “I like raspberries more than you do.” Or “I like raspberries more than olives to a greater degree than you like raspberries more than olives.” No one is capable of making the observations and measurements that would be necessary to verify the factual accuracy of these sorts of statements. Neither you nor I can observe and measure the other’s preferences in the way that we each can can with our own. And there is no common measurement scale that allows us to measure the difference between one’s own relative degree of preference for something against the other’s. By the very nature of qualia, one person’s qualia cannot be observed and measured by anyone else.Report

    • Kim in reply to QuibblerMan says:

      Yawn. People do measure interpersonal relativism all the time. Is it necessarily inaccurate? yeah, but… it’s done, and reasonably accurate. Try measuring pupil dilation.

      Can you measure people’s relative measurement scales? sure. give them a test — some people are all 5’s and 1’s, others put them in the middle. It’s relatively test independent too.Report

      • zic in reply to Kim says:

        Why did this comment bring education to mind; to assessment and grading?Report

      • QuibblerMan in reply to Kim says:

        Your hypothesis is that external physical responses like pupil dilation and responses on 5 point questionnaires are such accurate measures of qualia related to intrapersonal preferences that they can be used to objectively measure interpersonal preference differences?

        Given that you can’t observe someone else’s qualia in the first place, how would you test the validity of your hypothesis?Report

      • Kim in reply to Kim says:

        Money and Sales.
        You ever play poker?Report

  9. Here’s a quote from one of my favorite relativists, Benito Mussolini:

    If relativism signifies contempt for fixed categories and men who claim to be the bearers of an objective, immortal truth… then there is nothing more relativistic than Fascist attitudes and activity… From the fact that all ideologies are of equal value, that all ideologies are mere fictions, the modern relativist infers that everybody has the right to create for himself his own ideology and to attempt to enforce it with all the energy of which he is capable.

    Relativism when not limited to matters of taste inevitably leads to the argument ad baculum. It can’t help but do so. After that, the only thing that separates you from fascism is the fascists’ snazzy uniforms.Report

  10. Chris says:

    I wonder, is it possible to convince someone that something is good? What about if you know nothing of their tastes except that they do not like the very thing in question. So, for example, I know that you do not like Der Goldfisch, but I know nothing else about you (perhaps we were standing in front of a print of it while waiting in line at a bank or something, and you said, “Oh, that is awful.”) Is it possible for me to convince you that it is, in fact, a good painting, and have you walk away liking it?Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

      Or… a person walks into a gallery and sees a urinal displayed as a piece of art and mutters “that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen! That’s not art.” Then they hear a bit about the history and artist’s motivations for the piece. Is it possible for that person to come around and smile a bit? Or, if nothing else, say “clever”?Report

      • It is manifestly obvious that tastes of this type can and do change. Often it’s in response to argument and after a long consideration, though seldom is it in response to such a quick argument and after so little consideration.Report

      • Sam in reply to Stillwater says:

        I *shudders violently* agree with Jason. Of course taste can change. Any item can be contextualized in such a way as it suddenly makes sense. Our preferences are not written in stone. Except for my preference about not eating olives. That one is pretty chiseled.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

        Of course taste can change.

        Is this what makes it different from ethics and/or morality?Report

      • zic in reply to Stillwater says:

        JB, I’ve met a lot of people who have changes in their ethics and their morality. An increase and decrease of both, sometimes changes that happen simultaneously.

        Like taste, it’s highly situational; isn’t this why the way questions on opinion surveys can be manipulative?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        Of course taste can change.

        The weather can change too. Sometimes tastes just change laterally (from Big Macs to Quarter Pounders) and then back again. They bounce. Sometimes over time tastes change vertically, as a result of learning and experience and increasingly careful consideration.

        If knowing more about a piece of art (or style of art) changes a judgment from “it stinks” to “it’s pretty cool”, then I’d say that that change is caused by the realization of its variously related objective properties, obviously including context. Part of that probably includes “opening up” to what the artist is actually doing.

        Of course, some people – probably all of us to some degree – might not be so moved or be so open.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Stillwater says:

        JB, I’ve met a lot of people who have changes in their ethics and their morality. An increase and decrease of both, sometimes changes that happen simultaneously.

        If they were to tell it, would they say that their ethics/morality decreased? I might imagine that someone who ran into a drug/alcohol problem might say so… but someone who had, for lack of a better term, a moment of clarity and then changed her life?

        From my perspective, when I’ve seen this happen, the person in question (and I’m struggling for counter-examples and coming up short) thinks that they’re only moving in the “increase” direction (which, I assume, you’re using as a close-enough synonym to “better”).Report

      • zic in reply to Stillwater says:

        I know people who’d say that they’ve moved in the ‘worse’ direction; mostly in response to the youthful idealism. But those same individuals, seem likely to say they’ve also moved in a ‘better’ direction; and there’s some few who admit to becoming worse people in general without trying to justify.Report

    • Chris in reply to Chris says:

      If you were going to convince the person you’ve never met, how would you do it? What would you say? To what would you appeal?Report

  11. Shazbot11 says:

    Yeah, I’m a relativist about aesthetics but not ethics, science (some people are), or language.

    That said, there is a literature that tries to defend absolutism (i.e. the denial of relativism) about aesthetic judgments.

    There is a brief explanation and exploration of that position here:


    The problem is that there don’t seem to be any laws, criteria, or rules about what should be counted as beautiful, tasty, funny, etc. (There are such rules, though their status is disputed, about ethics: social contract, golden rule, Kantian rationality, etc.) So you can’t say “That isn’t beautiful because it doesn’t fit with this rule that says things are beautiful if and only if blah, blah, blah.” And that really seems to cut off any kind of absolutism.

    Plato and Kant both try to fill in the “blah, blah, blah” but with a great deal of difficulty.

    I’m no expert, but I think Kant’s idea is that X is beautiful iff it is found to be pleasurable from a place of disinterest (lack of physical desire especially), and all people will find the same things beautiful from that place. Not sure I get it, but maybe you’d be interested in reading Kant, Plato, Beardsley, etc.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Shazbot11 says:

      Did Plato address this? I remember Kant and Aristotle. I thought they did a pretty good job, actually.

      My problem with the article is that it didn’t make a distinction about what the author is relativistic toward. Ethics? Aesthetics? Epistemology? Not the last one, apparently, but he didn’t explain why for any of them.

      And I have to pick on the statement about non-relativists being terrified of a lack of an answer. Now that is condescending. It’s also poisoning the well.Report

      • Sam in reply to Pinky says:

        Non-relativists can have lots of reasons for believing that their own preferences are superior to everybody else’s, but none of them are pretty. The inability to let go of the need to be right for everybody else is among the nicer possible explanations. I’d be happy to get into the far less charitable explanations if you’d like, but that will go much farther toward poisoning the well.Report

      • Jason Kuznicki in reply to Pinky says:

        I should write up something on what I think good art is.

        Note that I didn’t say beautiful. Sometimes art is (and needs to be) ugly, at least on my theory.

        I’m not all that well-read on aesthetics, but I’m also not aware that what I think on the subject is represented in any significant school, and I think maybe it should be.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Pinky says:

        How about that people genuinely believe that there are objective criteria for beauty? I mean, you have to at least admit the possibility of a good faith argument against your position, or you probably haven’t heard your opponents at their best, which means you may have overlooked something.

        As for me, if it’s a debate between Kant and Plato or Aristotle, I’m going to trust what the Greeks have to say about olives, not some German.Report

    • Murali in reply to Shazbot11 says:

      Wait, you’re a non-relativist about language?Report

      • Shazbot3 in reply to Murali says:

        Yeah, that was unclear.

        I mean there are objective facts about meaning and reference. If I think the meaning or reference of such and such a word is such and such, I could be objectively wrong.

        More controversially, I think meanings and reference aren’t fixed by social agreement, i.e. it is possible -in rare cases- for everyone alive to be wrong about the meaning or reference of a word.

        But you don’t need to accept the latter to accept the former. If you think language is a real artifact that humans collectively create, then you can easily accept the former and have to give a bit of a complex story about how the artifcact -once created- doesn’t always work the way people say or believe it works.

        For example, if you believe in Kripke’s causal theory of reference, you’ve got facts about reference that are independant of what people believe about reference.Report

  12. Shazbot11 says:

    In short, Kant might say that you have a (probably conditioned) physical revulsion to olives, but if you could get past that, you would “see” how the taste of them is a beautiful experience. Or Kant might say if you could find a way to ignore that conditioned revulsion, you could see the objective beauty of the olives. Something like that.Report

  13. Mike Schilling says:

    It is objectively true that Dan Brown is a terrible writer. There is literally (*) nothing involved in being a writer that Brown doesn’t suck at. People who don’t recognize this are not expressing an opinion; they are revealing their ignorance of what writing is. In precisely the same fashion, John Entwistle was a better bass player than Sid Vicious, and Mozart was a better composer than Barry Manilow. Denying the validity of such judgments amounts to saying that for some people two plus two might equal five.

    *Picture Rob Lowe saying this part.Report

    • Sam in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I’ll deny the validity of such judgements, even if I myself happen to agree with some of the conclusions. I’m not ready to write off the judgement of people who simply enjoy something other than you do. I don’t know what is accomplished by doing so.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Sam says:

        I don’t know what is accomplished by doing so.

        This is a tough one, because I kinda agree with Mike, but I also very much see where Sam is coming from (and Sam, this is a very thought-provoking post, and I’ve been chewing over it in my head all afternoon; *something* about it doesn’t feel right to me, but it is well-constructed IMO).

        I think anyone would agree with Mike that some people are simply legitimately more able at accomplishing certain tasks than others. Whether it’s due to innate ability, physical dexterity/ characteristics, mental processing power/flexibility, personality, and/or long training and practice doesn’t matter – in the end, some people can simply accomplish task X better than others can, whether X= throw a fastball, make a chair, build a bridge, tell a story, paint a picture, sing a song.

        It therefore stands to reason that whatever they accomplished is often (but not always) better than a similar accomplishment by a less-able person (that is, if a person is better at *doing* a thing, then that thing is definitionally *done* better, on average, no? Or do you disagree with this part? Have I backed myself into tautology already? Dangit.)

        A practiced carpenter’s chair, will almost certainly be a better chair than one I cobbled together out of scrap lumber, on any number of criteria – its surface more free of splinters, its legs actually the ‘correct’ height for most people so that their feet touch the ground and their knees aren’t by their ears.

        People would sit in each, and most would probably say that he made a better chair than I made (and by better, they mean “more enjoyable to experience”).

        “But”, you say, “what about very short or very tall people for whom the carpenter’s chair’s height is ‘incorrect’; or what about masochists who really, really enjoy butt splinters – they may find that Glyph’s chair suits them better.

        And if even ONE person thinks Glyph’s chair better, that proves that ‘better’ is relative, and subjective!”

        And, you’re right.

        It obviously is.

        So then, what do we (as a species/society) accomplish, by judging his chair ‘better’ than mine, in the aggregate?

        We hopefully get more chairs like his than like mine in the future.

        Isn’t that a good in and of itself?

        More chairs that more people find enjoyable to sit on?

        I’m pretty sure I know at least two good rejoinders to this (one involves “But consider…The Room made more money than Non-Completely-Inept Film“), and I don’t know that I have a good response to them, so consider it conceded. This was just a stab; I also don’t know how much I’ll be able to participate in any back and forth tonight, I am wiped, whole fam’s been sick all week.

        Anyway, thanks for this, and I’m sure I will think about it some more.

        But, Dr. Seuss still rocks and Eric Carle still sucks!

        (If you like, mentally append an “I think” or an “IMO” to that; I won’t mind).Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I see more as a Josh Lyman type.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Or Toby Ziegler!Report

    • Jaybird in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Barry Manilow is actually pretty good. He’s fun and upbeat.Report

    • Rod in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      I wonder at how the “serious” music critics and academics of two or three hundred years in the future will view some contemporary artists that are currently dismissed by these types. Will Miles Davis, Pink Floyd, Dr. Dre, and Willie Nelson be spoken of in the same way as Mozart and Beethoven? Will they be studied in universities and publicly performed by musicians in black tie?Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Rod says:

        Bob Dylan.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Rod says:

        Will ABBA? If we can say “no” for certain, and we can, then there’s something going on that isn’t 100% subjective.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rod says:

        I agree that there’s something going on that isn’t subjective but you keep choosing bands that are awesome as counter-examples.


      • Glyph in reply to Rod says:

        “something is going on that isn’t 100% subjective”

        I have some kind of half-assed idea that there is some matrix of subjective qualities – creator’s intent, creator’s skill, audience/context, etc, etc. – any one of which is not necessarily sufficient on its own, but taken together creates some sort of emergent objective-ish property.

        But I can’t get it to cohere, and it could be reachy/handwavey.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Rod says:

        Well, you like Peter Cetera’s voice, so …Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Rod says:

        And if you leave me now, you take away the very heart of me OOOOH OOOOH OOOOH NO BABY PLEASE DON’T GO OOOOH OOOOH OOOOH GIRL I JUST WANT YOU TO STAYReport

      • Jaybird in reply to Rod says:

        I mean, no offense to Chris, but if you’re sitting in the basement drinking wine and wondering what in the hell happened with the love of your life, you could do a hell of a lot worse than Peter Cetera era Chicago.Report

      • Chris in reply to Rod says:

        RHP is for minor emotional crises. Chicago is for existential ones.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Rod says:

        Actually, that situation calls for Report

      • Rod in reply to Rod says:

        My point wasn’t that it’s all just subjective but that many consumers of “high brow” music are confusing a subjective preference for a particular genre for an objective evaluation of quality. It’s my understanding that a great deal of music in the classical style was produced that is now unknown because it just wasn’t very good.

        tl;dr, 90% of everything is crap, which implies that 10% of everything is quality. The judgment of which is which is largely a question of longevity.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Rod says:

        @rod – related, did you ever hear Mozart’s lone, sad attempt at a bluegrass song? That thing was awful.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Rod says:

        “The judgment of which is which is largely a question of longevity.”

        And even this criteria isn’t 100% certain not to be accidental (hence your “largely”). After all, some ancient text may still be read because it speaks better to the human condition than others like it; or, maybe that particular scroll just happened to be checked out of the Library of Alexandria at the right time.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Rod says:

        I have some kind of half-assed idea that there is some matrix of subjective qualities – creator’s intent, creator’s skill, audience/context, etc, etc….

        Write it up. I’d love to read it and I bet other folks would too. One of the things that makes this topic so hard to get clear on is that there aren’t any naturally occurring or obvious contours shaping the issues being debated. Is there a clear distinction between art and entertainment? Would it matter if there was? Are there higher and lower pleasures? Is the experience of art a dynamic relational activity, or does the “art” inhere in the object? Performance art v. non-performance art? The role of context? Does understanding the historical evolution of genres and individuals matter? (The first Picasso I ever saw was a pencil drawing of hands holding flowers. My mom put it on a wall in our house. I thought it was turrible, all those squiggly lines. It could have been drawn by a kid! I had a similar reaction to the first cubist piece of his I saw: “This isn’t art, it’s a mess!”)Report

      • Chris in reply to Rod says:

        The aesthetic demarcation problem.Report

      • Dan Miller in reply to Rod says:

        @rod This criteria works pretty well for things like music or art, but much less well for olives.Report

      • Kim in reply to Rod says:

        I could see Love Solfege being performed by musicians in black tie.
        Except then the violins would break, and everyone would have a sad.

        Moral: some music is not meant to be played by human hands.Report

    • Brandon Berg in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      There is literally (*) nothing involved in being a writer that Brown doesn’t suck at.

      That’s speculative at best. For all you know, he’s an excellent typist.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      It is objectively true that Dan Brown is a terrible writer.

      Yeah, his writing is awful. But his books are really fun to read. I think the same about Stephen King. Horrible writer. Just awful. But fun. Lots of people disagree with me.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Stillwater says:

        I enjoyed DaVinci Code, though every so often I’d be thrown violently out of the story by his complete misuse of a word or phrase. The characters were 2-dimensional ciphers too, but that doesn’t bother me: I’m a Golden Age SF fan. But it’s complete crap in a very well-defined way. What makes a good novel, one worth reading and re-reading?

        Prose. Theme. Characters. Story.

        It’s at best a D- on all of those. There is no case to be made that TDVC is better than Huckleberry Finn or The Great Gatsby, except “I liked it more.” I agree with Sam that that’s a purely relative judgment. Where I don’t agree is that it’s the only kind of judgment possible.Report

    • Murali in reply to Mike Schilling says:

      Dan Brown seems to be suspiciously good at getting lots of people who have not been formally trained in knowing what “good writing” is supposed to be to buy and read his books cover to cover. Hype only gets you to buying the first book. Not buying all the others and also reading them and passing them around and recommending them to your friends. Seems like one of a fiction writer’s jobs is to entertain and he does that more than reasonably well.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Murali says:

        What he’s best at (and I’m not kidding here, not even a little) is being convincing when he’s wildly inaccurate. People seem to think that the history in TDVC is reasonable, when it’s nonsense from beginning to end. I haven’t read Deception Point, but people I know who have and understand cryptography say the same thing’s true there too. I’ve never met this guy, but he agrees.Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        So what if his stories contain bullshit history and bullshit cryptography? If he can convince people of bullshit, there must be at least some parts of the craft he is getting right. After all, inducing suspension of disbelief seems to be part of his JDReport

      • Kim in reply to Murali says:

        Hype certainly seemed to work for Rowling. Her writing’s middling at best, and tedious at worst.

        *friend of a friend used to write for a living. Then made a killing as Rowling’s publicist.Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        Again for Rowling, our theories of what constitutes good writing are incomplete if they fail to account for successful instances of writing. It is difficult to argue with success. Presumably, there are stylistic features which cause large swathes of people to actually read said series of books to completion despite being written in a fairly ghettoised genre.Report

      • Chris in reply to Murali says:

        Murali, I agree, with one addition: it should be important to account for a work that is successful in its time, but a truer measure of artistic achievement is success in more than one era. That is, if you can write or paint or sculpt or compose something that is successful in your time, or a neighboring one (you know the old saying about great artists not being appreciated in their time), and successful in times less like the one in which you produced it, or in which it was initially successful, then you have produced something that is greater, artistically, than art that can only be appreciated in the time it was written.Report

      • Kim in reply to Murali says:

        Like a good advertising budget?
        Yeah, sure.
        Most people are sheep, and most people read stuff because other people tell them to read it.

        GRRM? His writing is bloody good pulp, at least at its best.
        It got a following well before the advertising budget got blown out of all proportion.
        Rowling? Not so much.Report

      • Murali in reply to Murali says:

        I rarely finish reading stuff that is supposed to be good and which people push me into picking up. So, while I can imagine people being hyped into picking up the first book and seeing what its all about, if her writing was really as mediocre I can’t imagine that lots of people would persist in reading her books.Report

      • Kim in reply to Murali says:

        You fail to understand group psychology.
        When it is something that Everyone Is Doing as a
        Big Community Event, people do it because to
        NOT do it is to be excluded.

        And that was the level that Rowling’s books achieved
        through Scholastic’s PR.

        And everyone finishes A Feast For Crows,
        despite the fact that it’s a relatively middling book,
        and A Dance for Dragons is downright awfully

  14. Jaybird says:

    When it comes to aesthetics, I imagine that humans have evolved to see some things as intrinsically desirable (BOOBS!) and, with a small amount of training, other things as intrinsically pleasing (MATH!) and so “art” that successfully recreates a small recognizable trigger for pleasure will be “good art”. Heck, go up a level or two and you can see how good art might trigger horror or pain or whatever and you can stand in front of Saturn Devouring His Son for hours while trying to process whatever it is that is at the back of your lizard brain that just won’t go away.

    Which always leads to questions about why we evolved along this path rather than that path and whether it’s representative of something deeper or if, hell, it’s just the way that it happened and if one of our ancestors went east instead of west, most of our music would involve tritones or petrushka chords and we’d find perfect fifths to be creepy.Report

    • Chris in reply to Jaybird says:

      Neuroaesthetics was a big thing not long ago:


      Most of the literature on neoroaesthetics since some silly grad student wrote those posts has been critical of the enterprise, but there has been some cool small advances in the psychology of art from less ambitious theoretical starting points.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Also, skimming the posts in that series, it’s clear that my obsession with Klee in discussions of aesthetics is not new.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        You know what? If this is biological on some level then it *SHOULD* be testable.

        I don’t know how we’d get away from the “trained to see Winslow Homeresque as awesome from birth” problem, though.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        If there are observable generalities in the human experience of beauty and aesthetic pleasure (which is separable from beauty, presumably), then hypotheses about then are definitely testable.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        I don’t know how we could possibly determine it’s separable without some serious Frederick II-level bullshit when it comes to testing.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

        Seems to me tests like that could only show what causes the qualitative experience associated with the presentation of beauty or aesthetic pleasure, but wouldn’t answer the question of whether one thing is more beautiful or is better art than another.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Jay, people are figuring out the testing part as we type.

        Still, certainly. Science doesn’t answer that kind of question. Those are judgements, not questions of casual mechanisms. They are the application of principles, perhaps, but that makes them why questions instead of how quotations. Measurement, to the extent that it has something to do with it, is just one of judgement’s tools.Report

  15. Shazbot3 says:

    I think you really want to be careful about what counts as a belief.

    My disgust at brussel sprouts isn’t a belief that brussel sprouts are bad. It is a feeling. We sometimes loosely speak as if feelings are cognative judgments that have content that can be true or false, but that loose talk is misleading.

    I am a noncognativist about disgust and desire for different kinds of food, entertainments, sex, etc. There is no belief at play to be true or false, so there really is no question about relativism or absolutism with respect to those mental states.

    However, there may be something called beauty -or artistic interestingness- that transcends and is distinct from disgust or physical desire about which there are facts. For example, it may be a fact that all people experience beauty when they see the Grand Canyon, and those who say it isn’t beautiful to them are wrong -having fail to see the beauty present im their own experience- and are thus making a false claim.Report

    • Shazbot3 in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      I’m not sure I agree with myself here, but this is what you need to argue against. Aesthetic relativism is some pretty low hanging fruit and if you really want to have insight you need to try to build the view up as best you can before you knock it down.Report

    • PPNL in reply to Shazbot3 says:

      There isn’t something out there called beauty. There is something inside you that lets you experience beauty. It is not a Platonist fact of the world but rather an aspect of your biological heritage.

      You also experience the redness of red yet that is no part of red light. It only exists inside you. The subjective and the objective are so entwined that we often cannot separate them. I believe that to be the origin of our Platonist instinct.Report

      • Burt Likko in reply to PPNL says:

        This seems intuitively correct. Beauty may well be cultural and to the extent something is perceived as beautiful beyond cultural boundaries, it may well be that the perception of beauty stems from something more fundamental. But that does not make the beauty and less the product of the perception of it’s observer; it only means that there is something deeper than culture driving that perception. Color is also instructive. People from different cultures look at the same thing, which reflects light at the same wavelength, but they report seeing different colors. To most people of Western culture, the ocean is blue. But many people see that the ocean is green. “Of course it’s green. Just look at it!” All that we can objectively say about the ocean is that it reflects sunlight at a particular electromagnetic wave. And that isn’t a particularly beautiful thing to notice.Report

      • Shazbot9 in reply to PPNL says:

        Yeah beauty could be real and also a construct of our experience.Report

  16. Brandon Berg says:

    Nonplussed doesn’t mean what it sounds like it means.Report

  17. zic says:

    It’s not olives, it’s olive oil.

    What’s in the bottle is relative to what was squeezed to put in the bottle. But if it says EEVO, and it’s something else, there is a moral/ethical element. I suspect there’s a whole lot of people who purchase Extra Virgin Oil and who think they like EVO because it’s been cut, and lacks that distinct taste of olives; it’s light and relatively flavorless. Our tastes are relative to how they’re informed or, in the case of false labeling, misinformed.

    (Forgive me if somebody else already linked.)Report

    • Kim in reply to zic says:

      Most processed oils have very little to do with their originator.
      That’s why someone allergic to coconut can eat processed coconut oil with aplomb.
      Note: the new stuff folks are consuming like mad isn’t processed enough.Report

  18. PPNL says:

    Erm, well it may be true that there is no objective truth behind liking or disliking olives. But that does not mean that there is no objective truth behind liking or disliking anything. We are after all biological creatures. There are some tastes that are subtly coded into our DNA. The objective truth then isn’t about the object we are eating but about ourselves.

    The problem with relativism is that subjective truth gets entwined with objective truth in such a way that we can no longer tell them apart.

    Morality is a perfect example of this. As a biological species we have certain preferences and predispositions built at the genetic level. This is further resolved by the culture we are embedded in. Individual experiences further reduces the moral landscape. We experience all these levels as a moral landscape out there when in fact it is all inside us. A different biological species could have a moral sense that no human could live under.Report

  19. Matty says:

    I wont pretend I read all the comments so maybe someone else got to this but if we replace the olives with a work of art there is a difference between.

    “It is possible to come up with a set of rules for evaluating art by which this piece scores higher than that one regardless of which I like more” and
    “it is a fact of the universe that this piece of art is better in the same sense that it is a fact that it is heavier”.

    The first I can agree with, the second I’m not even sure I understand. If you want to assert that olives (to jump back) are awful in some universal sense you not only have to come up with the criteria you used to decide that you have to explain why I should use them, reciting the word ‘objective’ like a magic spell probably wont be persuasive.Report

    • Pinky in reply to Matty says:

      It seems to me that you can posit some kind of absolute sense of beauty without denying the subjective sense in which we appreciate beauty differently. I don’t “get” architecture. I have some kind of problem with spatial relations that affects my ability to appreciate it. I’m sure it’s related to the way I don’t understand trigonometry but love calculus. I can’t deny that there could be objective standards for the beauty of architecture that I don’t understand. My defect doesn’t change the objective reality of beauty (if such exists) anymore than it changes the objective reality of distance.

      So for me to assert that there is some absolute sense that Mozart is better than Kanye, I don’t have to prove that there is no subjective sense that Kanye may be more appreciated by some people than Mozart.Report

      • Sam in reply to Pinky says:

        I can’t get past the absurdity of this claim. I’ve seen it elsewhere in this thread. The notion that it is objectively true that Mozart’s body of work is the pinnacle of musical achievement is absurd for several reasons:

        1. The most obvious one is Mozart’s favored status without our culture. Is that because he’s the best or because he spent 100s of years being favored by a wealthy, cultural elite who pushed his music as the best, a push that wasn’t only cultural, but academic? And how do we disentangle his long history as being a person that a select few said was best and the allegedly objectively conclusion that he is? Are we genuinely supposed to believe that those hundreds of years of indoctrination from birth didn’t have an affect on the people drawing those conclusions?

        2. And that’s before we get into the issue of those conclusions. How are they more legitimate that somebody’s who doesn’t think Mozart’s work was the best? If it’s just a gut feeling, them I’m sorry, but that doesn’t pass any sort of muster at all. If it’s just, “Well, we just KNOW he is…” without any sort of evidence, that doesn’t pass muster either. And whatever evidence is brought up for consideration is always within a framework decided upon by the evidence bringer. “We know Mozart is superior, because Mozart did X, Y, and Z, and X, Y, and Z are what matter!” doesn’t exactly explain why X, Y, and Z are right and A, B, and C, aren’t.

        3. Speaking of evidence that isn’t considered: sales. When evaluating art, we repeatedly shy away from what appeals to the most number of people. You can see it above when Dan Brown and Stephen King are chucked off a cliff for the crime of writing books that appeal to people. This is odd, although we do it because we don’t really want to believe that Madonna or Elton John or Elvis Pressley are amongst the greatest musicians of all time. That, of course, is rank snobbery, but whatever. Still, I find it odd that given the opportunity to put their preferences into action, it doesn’t seem as though people are overwhelmingly reaching for the Mozart. His works, as acclaimed as they might be, don’t seem to show up on these sorts of lists. But of course, the people buying that music have different (wrong) preferences apparently, and who are we to think that the sort of music that apparently appeals the most broadly is worthy of anything more than scorn and derision, especially when compared to somebody like Mozart whose music is better just because it’s better just because because because.

        4. This is where relativism comes in. Rather than trying to settle this – which we cannot do, because there are no right answers – we simply leave the question alone, and we don’t try to declare that Mozart’s fans are righter than Madonna’s fans because that makes us feel better/safer/prouder/whatever in what amounts to a puffed-chest display of unproven cultural superiority. We simply abandon the question, let individual preferences reign without attempting to decide whose cultural choices are best, and we move on.Report

      • PPNL in reply to Pinky says:

        You can posit it but why would you? Would you really expect an alien creature that evolved in a totally alien environment to like the same kind of music as you? In our science fiction the aliens are usually just humans in latex suits. In reality aliens will be alien in ways we simply can’t imagine. Our sense of beauty, morality and even color are reflections of our biology, culture and personal environment. You just don’t need some kind of Platonist essence existing out there.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Pinky says:

        You can see it above when Dan Brown and Stephen King are chucked off a cliff for the crime of writing books that appeal to people.

        Saying we enjoy their books is chucking them off a cliff? Neither of those guys could write their way out of a paper bag. They tell good stories tho. Do you think a distinction can be made between a good story and good writing?Report

      • Sam in reply to Pinky says:

        If somebody’s got a fine enough razor blade, I would love very much to see these two things split up. And then, after that’s done, I would like very much to see the proof that “good writing” is more important/valuable/meaningful/worthwhile than “good story.”

        I don’t mind of course if individuals want to make distinctions between the two. My entire point is that they should, if that’s what moves them. But doing so isn’t evidence of anything more than their own preference for whatever they’re calling “good writing” over whatever they’re calling “good story.” It isn’t a universal fact.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Pinky says:

        Well, I will actually stick up for some Stephen King, but that’s neither here nor there.

        @Sam – there’s no way writing can be objectively “bad” in your eyes? What if I write a story with every third word missing? What if I write a novel with a beginning and end, but no middle (or a middle from another story, or something else that causes the beginning and end to not connect in any comprehensible way)?

        Wouldn’t these stories be “less good” than a story that did not have these features, all else equal?

        (And yes, I know we can come up with counterhypos, like “not if every third word was otherwise “squid!”)Report

      • Sam in reply to Pinky says:

        Of course you can intentionally game the results. But even assuming that your decision to write, “Call me Squid Ishmael.” was intentional, I’m not prepared to tell the weirdo who prefers your version to the original Moby Dick both that they’re wrong and that the version I prefer is obviously better.

        Here’s another example: my five-year-old son’s favorite book is probably “Green Eggs and Ham.” Is he wrong? Are there objectively better books? And if so, why doesn’t my son enjoy them?

        There are answers to that question – he’s not old enough, he’s not experienced enough, his brain has developed enough, etc – but I don’t see why he’s wrong to think what he does, nor do I see why it is a greater, more worthwhile achievement to have written a book that appeals to one population (some learned adults, lets say) versus another (five-year-olds).Report

      • Glyph in reply to Pinky says:

        Of course, I’ve just described possible types of meta- or experimental fiction, and these of course can be considered “good”, if I enjoy them.

        Even if the creator didn’t intend the effect (or wasn’t all that skillful in implementing it), it still may accidentally achieve an emotional or intellectual effect in the reader.Report

      • Glyph in reply to Pinky says:

        Well, in my example my choices were meant to be unintentional – maybe I just have some weird tic that causes me to do those things.

        But it still wouldn’t matter – all kinds of creators have all kinds of tics; sometimes we find these tics brilliant, and sometimes we find them godawful.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Pinky says:

        I frankly don’t know if I believe in an objective beauty. My inclination is to believe it, because I’ve seen the same arguments used against the notion of objective truth and objective goodness, and I don’t think they hold water.

        As to “Green Eggs & Ham”, I think you’ve hit on something important that Team Objective Beauty needs to take into account. There are concepts that TOB holds up, such as unity and symmetry. But I think you have to include complexity in any measure of beauty, and that one is subjective. That is to say, we all have a threshold of complexity with which we’re comfortable. The child will like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, the more trained ear will like Vivaldi, the more trained ear will like Mahler.

        I’m not at Mahler yet. But ten years ago I was nowhere near him, and I couldn’t believe there was anything to him. I’m closer now. I can tell that there probably is something to him, and it may be impossible to define what that is, but humility demands that I entertain the possibility of it. As for facts or proof of beauty’s existence, I willingly admit that beauty/ugliness is on a different plane than truth/falsehood, and good/evil on a different plane as well. It’s been said that no number of “is” statements equal an “ought” statement. The same is true of, well, there’s no word for it, but let’s say “yay” statements, affirmations of something’s beauty.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Pinky says:

        The dynamic here seems to be that we start with a theory of relativism then stipulate that the only thing that can defeat it is a universal fact, which I take to mean mind independent properties of objects in virtue of which the realist position makes sense. Well, I don’t agree with either of those views, actually.

        Judgments about art are mind-dependent but they can be informed by objective properties of artistic objects. So while a person certainly can express an opinion about art similar to an immediate reaction analogous to responses to the way olives taste, people can alsoform judgments about art mediated by considerations of context, intent, history, context, mastery of craft, complexity, ambitiousness, difficulty, creativity, competence, originality, coherence, etc, etc, etc. (The list is endless and open and it has to be.) All of those properties are mind-dependent and unmeasurable by science, but they aren’t subjectively determined either, it seems to me. They can be learned and discussed, and they can inform – and thereby change – any particular person’s artistic judgments.

        So while for some people artistic judgments may be purely subjectively determined expressions like or dislike akin to eating an olive, other types of judgments aren’t. Like that Stephen King doesn’t write very good sentences.

        That’s my story and I’m sticking too it.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Pinky says:

        Speaking of evidence that isn’t considered: sales.

        That’s a funny one, because I think sales and merit have little or no correlation. For one thing, they don’t distinguish between a book the purchaser is going to treasure forever, and one he’s going to read once and completely forget halfway through the next one. For another, sales are driven by marketing. No publisher would even look at A Time To Kill, and in fact it’s pretty bad even as fluff, but after The Firm was a huge best-seller, it was printed and heavily promoted, and thus became a success.

        But find a web article on the current movies (not a best of the year, which tend to be different) and nine chances out of ten it’ll tell you about the ones that made the most money last week.Report

      • Mike Schilling in reply to Pinky says:

        I was going to say exactly what Still said, once I’d thought my position through further, come up with sounder arguments for it, and phrased them better.Report

      • Murali in reply to Pinky says:

        The is/ought problem is I think often overblown. Ultimately, if you want to effectively and truly solve long standing moral problems you are going to want some sort of effective reduction of moral oughts to is statements. Now, many current attempts may be implausible, but that does not mean that no good reduction is possible. Suppose moral rightness was some complex of natural and logical properties, then all ought statements could be reduced to various is statements. Pointing out that some action or rule had certain properties would be equivalent to showing that said action ought to be done or said rule ought to be complied with.Report

      • Rod in reply to Pinky says:

        @murali , IANAP, but I was under the impression that the is/ought problem was about establishing moral premises or precepts from observations of natural facts of the world and human beings.

        My own amateur stab at it would be to assume that our moral intuitions are the product of evolution shaping a successful human in a successful society and work from there. I suppose it’s really just a dodge to adopt intuitionism without being overly embarrassed about it, but that seems to be what everyone does whether they admit it or not.Report

      • Murali in reply to Pinky says:

        You’re right about what it is about, but one way you can get “ought”-s from “is”-s is by reducing moral properties to natural properties. Now, non-naturalists will jump in and say that such is not possible. They will say that moral oughts or moral rightness or goodness is irreducible or primitive. I’m suspicious of this. I’m willing to grant that no acceptable reduction has yet been given but I think more work needs to be done to show that no such reduction is possible.Report

      • Murali in reply to Pinky says:

        There is a trivial and an interesting version of the is/ought thesis.

        Take the following example:

        P1: X-ing maximises average utility
        C1: We ought to X

        The traditional objection is that there is some hidden premise which contains an ought such as

        P2: We ought to maximise utility.

        The trivial version of the argument for the no-ought-from-is claim will say that as long as formally, some such statement is required no normative statement can be derived from purely positive premises. The reason why this is trivial is the following example:

        P3: X-ing is the morally right thing to do.
        C2: We morally ought to X

        The trivial version of the objection will say that the missing premise is something like the following.
        P4: We morally ought to do the morally right thing.

        But P4 is completely trivial. It would be silly to think that just because C2 formally requires P3 and P4 that anything interesting is being said.

        Let’s go back to the first example. If doing the right thing was analytically equivalent to maximising utility, then P2 would be trivial as well. Objections about is-s and ought-s are thus not about the rather trivial point that even if two statements are analytically equivalent, formally establishing the conclusion requires stating how generally, statements made in terms of “ought” can be expressed in terms of “is”.

        What is really going is that when someone says doing X maximises inclusive fitness, people who raise the objection are really objecting to the implicit reduction of “is morally right” to “maximises inclusive fitness”Report

      • Sam in reply to Pinky says:

        people can also form judgments about art mediated by considerations of context, intent, history, context, mastery of craft, complexity, ambitiousness, difficulty, creativity, competence, originality, coherence, etc, etc, etc.

        Stillwater, each of those calculations is also going to be done based upon an individual’s list of preferences. In other words, you might prefer somebody else’s sentences, but your how exactly is your preference the right one? If you offer us a list of criteria, what makes your list the right one? And isn’t it at least a bit strange that the most relevant culture and the most relevant criteria almost always happen to overlap with that the individual claiming that happens to like/think?Report

      • Sam in reply to Pinky says:


        Seems to me that our biggest cultural touchstones get an incredible marketing push from academia, nevermind what our broader culture tells people who have the audacity to prefer Kanye to Mozart.Report

      • Kim in reply to Pinky says:

        I thought Mahler was one of the not complex ones? Big and bombastic, lotta flair.

        Not like, say, Schoenberg. He was a theorist, and an originator of new ideas.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Pinky says:


        each of those calculations is also going to be done based upon an individual’s list of preferences.

        Of course. That’s because a judgmentsimply is the expression of a person’s values or preferences or whatever. Maybe I’m not being clear about this, but it seems to me you’re still missing the important distinction, which is that those judgments can be determined (caused, shaped, informed, etc) by considerations of objective properties of the art itself. Personally, I think that’s sorta trivially obvious as well as descriptively accurate wrt how people’s judgments are in fact formed.

        You want to reduce artistic judgments to an emotional reaction akin to the experience of eating tasty or repulsive foods, a reaction which is immediate when presented with a stimuli. And as I said, certainly people can, and in fact do, form judgments about according to that model. But there are other judgments people can make about art which are mediated by considering various objective (but not mind independent) properties of artistic objects.

        I mean, presumably (if I’m understanding your view correctly), the particular gustatory experience caused by tasting an olive won’t be altered by learning more about olives themselves, and because of that the resulting judgment is impervious to mediating considerations. While artistic judgments can be made that way, they also – just as a matter of fact, it seems to me – can be determined (or influenced or changed or etc) by considering other properties of the object itself.Report

  20. Matty says:

    In an attempt to clarify I think I might mean something different by objective to other people. I tried to make clear that I do believe it is possible to come up with criteria by which you can judge Mozart better the Elvis and that are not just a matter of preference. What I don’t believe is that there is some kind of obligation to use those criteria or that other criteria are by definition a worse way to settle the question.Report

  21. Chris says:

    Like Still above, it seems to me that the defenders of a radical relativism in taste are essentially arguing that unless taste is not subjective, taste is radically relative (that is, any statement of taste is true only for the person who utters it). This is, I imagine, why many people are throwing in ethics, because ethics are thought by many to be subjective as well, but such a radical relativism with respect to ethics would be incredibly dangerous. But subjectivism need not imply relativism (and relativism need not entail subjectivism!): it is possible for taste to be subjective, which it obviously is, without truths about taste being relative to single subjects.

    It seems to me that the fact that I can recognize the quality of a work of art without liking it pretty much disproves the notion that the quality of a work of art is entirely dependent on my preferences. There are works of art that I recognize as brilliant but would never put on my wall because I don’t like looking at them. Hell, I might even feel that, as works of art, they’re better than some of the stuff I would put on my wall. At the very least, then, the story of what taste is relative to must be more complicated than simple preference, revealed or merely stated.

    What’s more, it is an empirical fact that there are works of art the quality of which is recognized by more people, or over more generations, than others. And it seems that, if we were so inclined, we could go about determining what it that such works have in common, if anything. And if we were to do so, it might be possible to abstract certain features that, when present, tend to make a work of art transcend its time, its place, or particular individuals or group of individuals. We might, then think that these works are, in a way that transcends individual subjects, “better” than others as works of art, and that the features that they share objectively determine the quality of works of art.

    Some of the properties we might recognize might be pretty simple. In literature, for example, we might recognize that works in which characters are developed in such a way as to make them identifiable, that gives them depth, and that is consistent with their actions in the story, are better, all else being equal, than works with one-dimensional characters, or characters whose actions make little sense given what we’ve learned about them in the work.

    Some of the properties might be more complex: in painting, we may consider historical context, in combination with a painter’s use of color and composition, that, if we were simply to consider it a-contextually, might look like a collection of poorly drawn figures. (I recognize that it might seem weird, at first, to talk about transcending time and place while being dependent on historical context, but I think we could come up with a pretty straightforward explanation for how this would work, were we so inclined.)

    We might even, through the careful analysis of art, develop sophisticated theories about the objective, or at least intersubjective, aspects of aesthetic taste and the quality of art. None of this would tell you what you should like or not like, or resolve all disputes (the application of abstract principles to particular objects will always lead to disputes), but the existence of individual preferences and disputes is hardly evidence against abstract, objective principles, or for a radical relativism.Report

    • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Chris says:

      I strongly disagree with your claims here, simply because there is no separating the cultural influence that might lead successive generations from celebrating a single work from the assessment of the work itself. And that’s before we talk about which part of those successive generations are doing the celebrating. If it’s the same societal elite, that also seems worth noting.

      More broadly, I have no objection to picking a list of criteria that inform the things you love. But what makes that list of criteria better than my list of criteria? Or her list? Or that guy’s list over there? Why is this one particular set of criteria, even one created by a group of people together, one that we assume gets us closer to the truth of a thing?

      That’s before we even begin to get into the sort of things that a list of principles can start to do. Like start suggesting that Europeans have the best of literature, art, music, and film on absolute lockdown for example. Or that, to use a smaller model, that Mozart is obviously better than Kanye.

      And finally, as I’ve noted elsewhere throughout this discussion, I still can’t help but notice that the sort of principles that are cited as being very likely to produce objective conclusions happen to also produce an incredible overlap with what the people establishing those principles already happened to personally prefer. I would love to find an example of a group getting together to establish principles and upon the completion of their work, discovering that those principles excluded everything that they themselves happened to like.Report

      • Chris in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        First, I think we should talk about cultural context in any evaluation of art. So on that we agree, but this makes the evaluation of art relative to a cultural context, if its relative to anything (I think you can talk about culture without it being culturally relative, or at least without it being completely so).

        Second, the sorts of principles I used as examples (loose ones though they were) hint at what I think makes art better: universality. The goodness of a work of art is largely a function of its ability to appeal across time, across cultures, across classes, across ethnic and geographical boundaries, etc. Art that taps into things that we share — be those emotions, or just bare facts about our cognitive and perceptual systems — is better than art that does not do so.

        And I think this is the case because of my views about the functions of art. Your position entails, in essence, that the function of art is merely to be enjoyed by individuals. As such, the goodness of a piece of art is entirely dependent on the enjoyment of individuals. I think art has a broader social, cultural, and psychological purpose than mere enjoyment, so I think there are broader principles that inform, even determine, the goodness of art.

        In short: before we can even start to distinguish between relativism and any other theory of aesthetics, we have to first figure out what the hell art is trying to accomplish. When you ask something like this: But what makes that list of criteria better than my list of criteria? Or her list? Or that guy’s list over there? Why is this one particular set of criteria, even one created by a group of people together, one that we assume gets us closer to the truth of a thing?, you are not really asking for an argument against relativism — I’m afraid that the post and many of the supporting comments by you and others have left little room for such an argument, because of your tacit theories about what art is for — but for an argument against your view of what art is for. And I’d be happy to give you mine, though it would make for a fairly long post. Suffice it to say, for now, that it is completely inconsistent with your radical relativism, as are virtually all theories about what art is for.Report

      • Pinky in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        “…the sort of principles that are cited as being very likely to produce objective conclusions happen to also produce an incredible overlap with what the people establishing those principles already happened to personally prefer”

        As I said, I don’t get architecture. I’m aware that there’s a difference between Gothic and Romanesque, but it doesn’t mean anything to my tastes, because I don’t have any tastes that I’m aware of. It’s this fact that makes me lean toward believing in objective beauty. If I got it, I could look at a building and say “I like this because of x”. I don’t. Others do, and consistently. Metaphorically, I’m a blind man who’s heard too many people describe colors to think that they’re all lying.

        Maybe a better example is punk music. I’m fully aware that, by any reasonable standards, the stuff isn’t very good. But I like it.Report

  22. parx says:

    Hi. *waves at everyone* You don’t know me, but I know you – or at least I feel lilke I do, having read the comments here for two years now. This is the first time I wanted to say something that hadn’t already been said.

    I want to talk about olives. In my family’s division of labor, grocery shopping falls under my bailiwick. But I am an olive -hater, while my wife is a passionate olive-lover. So I have had to learn about olives. According to the law set down by my wife, little green olives are scarcely even worth calling “olives”. They must be the kind sold by specialty stores, and be big and black, with something other than pimento for stuffing – ideally anchovy or some sort of exotic cheese.

    Translating to music, I am old enough to remember the older folks’ complaint about the Beatles and lother music of that ilk – “Why, that’s not even music!” But it clearly was: it fell under 99.9% of all objective definitions of music. Now here, I am an oddity – my two favorite types of music are classical and country. So I have to speak to detractors “from above” on classical, and “from below” on country. By this I mean that people who hate classical (and they are the majority) still pay lip service to it being some form of high art. People who hate country (and they are legion) feel no such need, often extending their hatred of the genre to the people who listen to it.

    In both cases, I have long since learned not to argue from the core. I offer no reasons, logical or emotional, why they should listen to (or like) either genre. Instead, if they like music at all, I seek to find something within or close to the ambit of the genre (video game or movie scores, for example; Terry Allen or early Johnny Dowd, for another). Find a way to bridge the gap.

    I guess my response brands me a total relativist, at least as to concrete examples, such as olives or music. I am still turning in my head whether (and when) my stance requires me to just oppose someone’s choice of morality and ethics, rather than try to bridge the gap between the other’s and mine. There is a line, but thankfully, I have yet to encounter it in my daily life, or even my work as an attorney. Most people are much quicker to draw the line than I am.Report

    • Chris in reply to parx says:

      You don’t know me, but I know you – or at least I feel lilke I do, having read the comments here for two years now.

      Well, now that you’ve introduced yourself, I fully expect you to keep talking :).Report

    • Chris in reply to parx says:

      I remember my grandfather once telling me, when I was driving him somewhere in my car (I was maybe 17) and listening to my music, that there had been no good music since the 40s. He was objectively (or empirically) wrong, and I’d be happy to argue for that position using both features of the music, features of (the limits of) my grandfather’s preferences, etc.Report

    • NewDealer in reply to parx says:


      I like a lot of “old school” country I guess. The song Loving You is a Happy State of Mind by Bill Anderson is absolutely charming. So is old Hank Williams.

      I don’t like the stuff that is basically liberal-bashing and seems like proto Sarah Palin or the new Nashville Country Pop.

      In terms of Classical, I’m on your side. My main types of music are indie rock, jazz, and classical.Report

  23. Sam says:

    @stillwater I can’t respond to what you wrote. Maybe that’s on my end?

    How are you establishing which properties matter and which properties don’t? I’ve proposed one examples – total sales – because that is a tangible, measurable thing, but most people don’t like that, if only because their own favored art doesn’t end up coming out on top…err, I mean, because it is a bad way to measure things! Anyway, my point is that even the selection of those allegedly objective properties is nothing of the sort. It is biased in all kinds of ways, most often to produce results most favorable to the person selecting the properties in the first place.

    I don’t object, incidentally, when people prefer certain properties. My point is simply that those properties are no more “true” than anything else.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Sam says:

      My point is simply that those properties are no more “true” than anything else.

      Yeah, I get that. A lot of this dispute seems to rely in what we take to be “true”, and how claims to a truth can be justified. Like I said before, if we begin with only two options – reductive relativism and objectively measurable facts – then relativism will win by default, and trivially so, it seems to me. That’s because the creation of art (let’s just suppose this is true for a second) and artistic judgments are mind dependent activities. So it sorta trivially follows that without minds there would be no artistic judgments. And in a bit less trivial way it follows that there’d be no objects of art.

      Well, let’s imagine a world without human minds but which still contains Picasso’s La Guerra. Are there any objective properties scientifically measurable properties of that object which reveal it as art? Let’s suppose there aren’t (I sorta agree with that, actually). If so, then it seems entirely obvious (at least according to one line of thinking) that viewing something as art is an entirely subjective experience since there are no objective properties of the thing itself by which it could be indentified as art. (Like an art property, so to speak.)

      Where I disagree isn’t so much about the idea of the existence of an objectively measurable “art property” (since I’m conceding that doesn’t exist), but conflating two distinct conceptions of the term objective. On one meaning of the term, objective means “mind-independent”. On another, it means not subjective.

      But there is another meaning of the term objective which includes mind-dependence. That is there are mind-dependent things, objects, practices, etc humans engage in that have objective properties. Eg, baseball is a mind dependent game – without minds, there would be no baseball (let’s suppose that’s true for now) – but there are properties of the game and it’s players which are, in fact objective.

      My view rests on that third type of meaning of objective: that is, objective properties of mind-dependent activities or objects.

      With that outa the way, onward to answering your question:

      How are you establishing which properties matter and which properties don’t?

      By experiencing them (learning them, becoming aware of them, etc). I mean, Russell Saunders is an objectively better writer than I am irrespective of whether I could convince another person who was ignorant of the properties I’d appeal of that fact. Fluidity, concision, clarity, eloquence, mastery of terms and sentence structure, evocativeness, uniqueness, etc etc.

      Another way to answer it is that the demand – like the initial demand for a mind independent fact of the matter – is either too high or misplaced. That is, it seems to me I could only objectively justify a preference ranking if I’d already justified the existence of mind independent artistic facts. But I reject that there are any. Subjectively, tho, it seems to me I don’t rank them. I simply have them and evaluate art according to them, which is wildly different than simply responding to art along the lines of tasting an olive.Report

      • Stillwater in reply to Stillwater says:

        In the above example about Russell, I didn’t make it clear that by “writing” I’m not including content. Some sad soul out there might actually think my content is better than Russell’s and confusingly believe in virtue of that I’m a better writer. Speak up now, sad soul, if you’re out there, and I’ll quickly disabuse you of that notion.Report

  24. Chris says:

    Let’s distinguish between two sorts of aesthetic judgments (I’m leaving food out of this, because I think there are issues with food that complicate the matter; I’ll mention them at the end of this comment, just so that they’re on the table, pun intended): intuitive and deliberate. It is often the case that these two types of judgments, when applied by one person to a single work of art, yield different results.

    Intuitive judgments are unconscious and automatic. They can be shallow or sophisticated, depending on the individual and his or her experience, the context, and so on, but they are not arrived at through the process of consciously deliberating about a work of art. Think of this as your immediate reaction to a painting or piece of music: you see or hear it, and immediately find it pleasing or unpleasing, and perhaps experience other emotional and cognitive reactions related to its quality as well. You may not even be aware of why you find it pleasing or unpleasing, and there’s a good chance that, should you try to determine why you do, you will come up with a story that has little to do with the actual reasons (which, recall, are unconscious, that is, not available to your awareness).

    Deliberate judgments are based, as the name suggests, on deliberation. You consciously think about the work, bringing to bear your knowledge of context, the artist, aesthetics, technique, and so on, and form a judgment about the painting which can be constantly open to revision (more so than intuitive judgments, at least, though it could be the case that past deliberate judgments influence future intuitive ones, to the extent that they change the sorts of representations that influence intuitive judgments).

    These two judgments are often in sync with each other, particularly when the latter amount to post hoc rationalizations of the former, but they need not be. It is possible to find a work of art intuitively unpleasant, but through deliberation, consider it a work of genius (say this: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/82/Francisco_de_Goya,_Saturno_devorando_a_su_hijo_(1819-1823).jpg or this: http://www.pablopicasso.org/images/paintings/guernica3.jpg ; in both cases, I would not put those on my wall, but I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about them over the years).

    So, which type of judgment is the value of a work of art relative to? Is one type of judgment better than the other? To which do we defer when they differ in their conclusions? Might we recognize differences in ability in the latter? And to the extent that the latter can inform the former, differences in ability in the former?


    I leave food out because, unlike the way some of you see art (that is, as entirely subjective), there are objective criteria that affect the goodness of food that are undeniable, particularly healthiness.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Chris says:

      Dang, this comment kicks things up a notch.

      I like it.Report

    • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Chris says:

      I had a comment below that apparently didn’t nest like I’d intended for it to do. It referenced the food issue. Meanwhile, regarding the notion of talking ourselves into art: Rose and I are potentially going to do a back and forth about this very subject (or, something close to it) as a result of our pleasant disagreement about my relativist position. I’ll simply say this: I am leery about the idea that we’re being honest when we say, “It isn’t for me, but I can note the artistry.”

      What does it mean to do that?Report

      • Chris in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        How do you determine when we are, or are not, being honest with ourselves? Is there only one sort of appreciation of things that can be honest? Or is it possible for me to note that some Dutch Renaissance painter has mastered the use of light and shadow without actually liking said painter’s paintings?Report

      • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        In evaluating honesty, I tend to preference actions to words. So if somebody says they like something, I am dubious without further indicative action. If I tell you I like olives, but then you see me pour gasoline on any pizza with olives on it while screaming, “NO NO NO NO NO!!!”, what are you going to believe?Report

      • Chris in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

        I understand that you value actions over words, but it’s difficult to express, say, an appreciation for the expert use of light and shadow, or of color, in action alone, particularly if those things alone don’t necessarily mean that I want to look at a work all of the time.

        In the room I am in now, I have 4 paintings, one of which you might be able to guess, since I’ve talked about it in this thread. One is a print of Manet’s portrait of Bertha Morisot, because I saw the actual painting at an exhibit in Nashville a few years ago, and found Morisot so hauntingly beautiful that I couldn’t look away. Another is a Turkish painting that my grandfather bought in Turkey sometime in the early 60s, which I keep because the colors are vibrant and because it reminds me of my grandfather, whom I loved dearly (he died 10 years ago). The third is a painting a friend painted for me. The fourth is the Klee I keep talking about. The Manet portrait is hardly his best, and it was really Morisot, not Manet, that drew me to it. I was able to inherit the Turkish painting because no one else in my family wanted it. They all thought it was ugly. It is. It reminds me of my grandfather, and the blue really does stand out, so it’s there. The portrait reminds me of the person who painted it, who was talented, but no artistic genius. The Klee I think is a wonderful piece of art. Four different paintings, four different reasons for keeping them on my wall, only one of which has anything to do with artistic merit. And there are thousands of paintings that I would consider better than 3 of the paintings on the wall, but don’t have on my wall, either because they don’t have the sentimental value, because they just wouldn’t “work” with the ones that do have sentimental value, or because I just don’t have an urge to put them on my wall (God knows I don’t want that Goya on my wall). How might I express my appreciation for them, then? Does the fact that I have the Manet I have mean that I think it’s a better painting than his other portraits (God I hope not, because it’s kind of ordinary)? And the Turkish painting? I bet I could go to Google right now and find 10 better examples of this style of Turkish art right now. But I’m not buying them and putting them on my wall. Does this mean that I actually think the one on my wall is the best? Or can my words convince you that I don’t?Report

  25. Sam Wilkinson says:

    Your comment about food is a small example of the bigger problem, as I’d quibble with:

    1. You say that there are objective criteria that affect the “goodness” of food, which you then state to mean healthiness. Well, okay. I’m not sure why healthiness automatically means goodness. It might to you, I suppose, but I’d question how that seriously question what is objective about that criteria.

    2. I can imagine many different ways to define the “goodness of food” that are probably not only deniable, but would cause fights amongst carefully chosen people.

    3. Maybe I’m misunderstanding what you meant?Report

    • Chris in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      I think you must be, because now you have inched right up to the edge of moral relativism.

      I’ll go back to my earlier comment about the purpose of a thing determining how we evaluate it. If food, or art, is merely for the purpose of pleasure, or enjoyment, then it stands to reason that the only measure of the goodness of art or food is how much pleasure we derive from it. We might still argue that your radical relativism is wrong, because arts or foods that more people enjoy are better, but we’d be arguing from an explicit position about the purpose of art and food.

      However, I think food has purposes other than enjoyment. We all, if we live past a very young age, eat foods that we don’t like as much as others because we have to in order to stay alive and healthy. Does this mean we prefer those foods, even though we enjoy them less? If so, we’re certainly at the precipice of admitting that there are objective criteria for the evaluation of the goodness of food. Or are we forced to eat them, despite the lack of pleasure we derive from them (or the displeasure they cause), because we have another preference, staying alive? In which case, if we admit that this is a purpose of food, for us and for everyone who eats (except perhaps the suicidal), then we’re again at the precipice of admitting that there are objective criteria for the evaluation of the goodness of food.

      If the purpose of art and food and other objects of appreciation are merely personal pleasure and preference, then relativism, while it is not straightforward (all of your arguments seem to actually use relativism to argue relativism), is at least a coherent position. But if food and art serve other purposes, purposes that transcend individuals, as I and I suspect most people think they do, then relativism becomes nonsensical.


      As to whether you’re also edging towards a dangerous sort of moral relativism (you might have crossed the line already): we could argue, and in fact people have argued, that we have a duty to remain healthy. We have such a duty to ourselves, and to those around us (the cost of unhealthiness to society, say, or to our loved ones, could certainly result in such a moral calculation, could it not?). If the goodness of food is entirely determined by my personal preferences, and my personal preferences are entirely for good tasting foods that are unhealthy, we’ve run up against that potential moral duty, haven’t we?

      And this is just a simple example. When we get to art, it becomes even more complicated. Art doesn’t just affect our limbic systems. It also affects the way we think, and there is art that can do so in ways that are objectively harmful (say, extremely racist or sexist art, or propaganda). As soon as we admit a radical relativist position, mere preference for such art becomes the criterion by which we judge it, and while we may be able to convince people not to like it by evaluating its racism or sexism or dangerous propagandistic components, we are committed to the position that our criticisms are no more valid than the racist’s or sexist’s or propagandist’s preferences.Report

      • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Chris says:

        There is much to reply to here and it is (already) 12:30, so let me reply to one part here and hopefully remember to get the rest tomorrow:

        Relativism does not demand that the criterion by which we “judge” art to be anything. The sort of relativism that I would advocate for observes that those judgements are based entirely upon individual criteria specific to the individual. Nothing forbids the assemblage of that criteria, but rather, that those criteria are the only thing that matters.

        Here is a very small example. Rather than declaring that, “Metallica are the hardest rocking MFers on the planet!” a more accurate construction would be, “I think Metallica are the hardest rocking MFers on the planet!”*

        *Please note: I do not think Metallica are the hardest rocking MFers on the planet.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        Your Metallica example shows that what you’re developing here is not, in fact, a theory of judgment, or of art, or of aesthetics more generally, or of value or preference, but a theory of the meaning of words (a theory that says, in essence, that any statement that “X” is translatable to the statement “I think that X.”) Putting aside the validity of that as a theory of meaning, we’ve already left relativism, at least the radical relativism of the OP, behind. That is, since we’re now talking about the meaning of words, we are, of necessity, talking about shared concepts, shared meanings, and we’re no longer in the realm of arbitrary things that can be determined by individual preference.

        That is, if words mean things, then they don’t merely mean, “I think that X is Y, therefore it is so.” To the extent that Y means something, whether it applies to X is, at the very least, a social fact, not an individual one, and as such there is nothing to exclude them, a priori, from admitting objective criteria. In fact, if we don’t ground them in something out there (where out there can mean in here, just not in a purely subjective way), it’s going to be very difficult to claim that we have any shared meaning in the first place.

        It’s true that the sorts of abstract concepts that we use to refer to art and many other things (laws, for example), are difficult to pin down, and ultimately their meanings reflect larger belief systems. Yet, they still have meanings, for them to have them they have to be shared.Report

      • Shazbot9 in reply to Chris says:

        “Relativism does not demand that the criterion by which we “judge” art to be anything. The sort of relativism that I would advocate for observes that those judgements are based entirely upon individual criteria specific to the individual. Nothing forbids the assemblage of that criteria, but rather, that those criteria are the only thing that matters.”

        This confuses me. If everyone has different criteria for how to properly use the predicate “is good food” then everyone uses the term with a different meaning and we cannot discuss whether some food, like an olive, is good. But we can discuss and disagree whether food is good meaningfully, so we must agree on criteria for the use of the word.

        But then there are objective criteria for the proper use of the words “is good food” which in turn means there are objective criteria for what counts as food.

        To deny this, you have to say that the predicate “is good food” does not signify a cognitive judgment -it just looks like it does superficially, because it deploys the word “is” which is usually reserved for descriptive language. Rather, you have to say that the phrase “is good food” emotes your feelings towards food. That is, to say “Olives are not good food” is to say the near equivalent of “Boooo! Olives!” Of course, “Boooo!” does not have a truth value and is not an attempt at describing the world or expressing a cognitive judgment that can be correct or incorrect.

        Or do you maintain that aesthetic language is cognitive, descriptive, and that sentences like “Olives are good” have a truth value (a relative truth value of course)?Report

      • Sam Wilkinson in reply to Chris says:


        Sorry I didn’t reply earlier. My Metallica example was a small thing, simply about how our assertions of whatever as being the superior example of a broader group are just that: our own assertions. On a larger scale, the same thing is happening when, let’s say, cultural critics get together to create a list of very important movies. But I was merely using the Metallica example to illustrate.

        Please note also that I do not preclude the possibility of people agreeing with each other. Or on schematics for judgement. If we want to value particular things about art collectively, I have no problem with that occurring. My objection when disagreement is taken as a sign of willful ignorance or worse, when the people who enjoy Kanye are told that their music is objectively worse than Mozart, not because of any framework that the Kanye fans signed up for, but because the Mozart fans agreed upon framework excludes Kanye’s work. It’s obviously possible for both contingents to like their own thing without either demeaning the other’s or asserting their own superiority. It’s just a different thing.Report

      • Chris in reply to Chris says:

        My objection when disagreement is taken as a sign of willful ignorance or worse, when the people who enjoy Kanye are told that their music is objectively worse than Mozart, not because of any framework that the Kanye fans signed up for, but because the Mozart fans agreed upon framework excludes Kanye’s work. It’s obviously possible for both contingents to like their own thing without either demeaning the other’s or asserting their own superiority. It’s just a different thing.

        With this I agree 100%, but it does not require relativism. Hell, I like Mozart and Kanye, and I recognize that they are different things. I mean, if we’re talking about musical composition, Mozart is obviously better. If we’re talking about rapping, I think Kanye’s going to kick Mozart’s ass, though we should never underestimate those Salzburgians.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to Chris says:

        She find etchings in my deliveries
        I sent this wench some drawings of my gentleman usher
        I don’t know what it is… erm….

        Yeah. Mozart isn’t going to win that one.Report

    • Stillwater in reply to Sam Wilkinson says:

      Sam, I’m certainly not certain Chris would agree with this, but it seems to me that when you say some people would disagree with a judgment about the goodness of food based on nutritional value, say, you’re neither arguing against realism nor supporting relativism. The claim on the table is that nutritional value is a potential determiner of preferences regarding food. Simply pointing out that some people don’t use that criterion in their preference rankings doesn’t mean that it’s not a real property of food that some people actual value and use to to make food choices.

      It seems to me that in this case (as Chris is describing it, which is pretty nuanced), the relativist needs to establish more than that some people as a matter of fact don’t invoke these types of criteria in their judgments or even reject them. They need to establish that these types of criteria cannot exist. That they’re a logical confusion of some kind. That seems like a tall task.Report

      • Chris in reply to Stillwater says:

        This is definitely part of what I’m getting at, but I’m trying (and I think failing) to say something more than that. The reason these types of criteria — subjective or objective, because it’s possible for a pure subjectivism to yield something other than relativism; the two things are different — can exist, is because there is something that it is to be food, or more precisely, we have a relationship with food, and our evaluations with food are based on that relationship. And there are facts about that relationship that are not dependent on individual minds, or else “food” no longer has any meaning but what I think and, perhaps, can convince you to think.

        Put differently, I think it’s safe to say that if I think that a concrete block is food, and convince you to think so, we would both be wrong. We would be wrong because a concrete block cannot serve any of the purposes of food (try eating one, if you disagree — but before you do, let me make a deal with a dentist and a g.i. doctor so that I get money each time I refer one of you to them). If what makes food food is the purpose (or set of purposes) that it serves, then we can make evaluations about whether something serves those purposes better. We can have debates about these things, but we can only do so because we understand what food is, which is to say, what its purposes are.

        The same is true of art. Art may be more difficult to define, but we can paint a fairly abstract picture (see, more puns) of art, and our relationship to it, and we can begin to talk about how that affects our evaluations of art in a way that, because “art” isn’t a strictly personal thing that only has meaning for individuals (if it were, “art” would be meaningless, and we wouldn’t be able to talk about it), we can develop non-relative (in the OP’s sense) evaluations of art.Report

  26. Sam Wilkinson says:

    Said I wouldn’t do this, but briefly, and as an extension of my earlier comment about preferring action to words: I am extremely dubious about the claims you’re making in your fourth paragraph because, to me, the actions suggest that the words are a not entirely thorough accounting of the truth.Report